David Willetts, Shadow Pensions Secretary: Why 'Two Brains' is confident of meltdown

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The Independent Online

David Willetts sparked a flurry of lurid headlines with his doom-laden warning last month that the pensions crisis "is up there with terrorism or global warming as a threat to much of what we value". His keynote speech prompted accusations of scaremongering as well as many nods of approval.

Mr Willetts, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, was dubbed "a combination of John Maynard Keynes and Harry Enfield's Tory Boy" by one commentator, who accused him of "dumb ranting".

But contemplating the furore in the bookish quiet of his Parliamentary office, surrounded by his wife Sarah's oil paintings, he shows no sign of relenting.

Companies will go bust, he warns, charities will collapse, councils will lurch deeper into financial crisis and the living standards of generations of pensioners will be hit by the crisis.

"It's big, it's very big," he says. "And I still don't think people have come to terms with it."

He hesitates to call the crisis a golden opportunity for the Tories. But in narrow political terms, it is certainly a very rich seam. There is the collapse of Equitable Life, of course. There is the wholesale dumping of traditional guaranteed "final salary" pension schemes by private employers. There is the widespread talk of people having to work longer - the CBI recently suggested that the state pension age should be lifted to 70.

And in recent weeks, we have seen the 40,000 British members of the Federal Mogul/Turner & Newall pension schemes scared witless by the bankruptcy writhings of their sponsoring company.

Middle England, which until recently was gloating over rising house prices, is starting to fret about shrinking retirement nest eggs.

Adding to the discomfort of the Andrew Smith, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, it has just emerged that Tony Blair wanted to replace him with Peter Mandelson, only relenting and sending his friend to Brussels in the face of a Cabinet revolt.

According to Mr Willetts: "It leaves Andrew Smith in a totally humiliating position. He has to go on as a minister when everyone knows that the Prime Minister wanted to sack him.

"He's the walking wounded."

The warnings of pensions carnage are curiously apt from Mr Willetts, 48, who looks a bit like Quentin Tarantino. Imagine the Reservoir Dogs director with rimless specs, brogues, House of Commons cufflinks and less hair.

Nicknamed "Two Brains" because of his capacious intellect, the MP for Havant in Hampshire clearly relishes grappling with one of the most complex subjects known to ministers.

At one point he jumps up eagerly to rummage about on his desk for an actuarial forecast. He is comfortable spouting about demographic cohorts and accrual rates. He has been on the pensions beat for three years.

Smith Square's favourite intellectual may be losing some of his fans - he was recently stripped of responsibility for drafting Conservative policy - but his energy seems undimmed.

Of course the basic problem with pensions has nothing to do with politics. It is simply that life expectancy is rocketing and that investment returns are crumbling. Ergo, there won't be enough in the kitty for tomorrow's pensioners.

But, Mr Willetts does pin two skewers of blame firmly on Gordon Brown for making things worse. First, the Chancellor slapped a £5bn-a-year tax on dividends paid to pension funds soon after Labour came to power. And second, his love of means-tested benefits, such as the pension credit, has deterred the less well-off from saving.

Mr Willetts, however, won't make any promises about reinstating tax credits on dividends paid to pension funds if the Conservatives return to power. "It's a possibility, but I wouldn't put it beyond that," he says. He doesn't sound very hopeful. The shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, has yet to flesh out how he will make his fiscal sums add up.

On means-testing, Mr Willetts is on firmer ground, having already announced plans for a Tory government to lift the basic state pension and thus take a million people off means-tested benefits. A quarter of a century after Margaret Thatcher severed the link between the state pension and average earnings, the Conservatives now plan to reinstate it.

Far from costing the taxpayer extra, the change - if combined with other welfare reforms - could actually save the Exchequer £720m over four years, Mr Willetts claims.

He promises to do away with the hated rule which forces people with money-purchase (or defined contribution) pension schemes to buy an annuity with their accumulated nest egg by the age of 75.

And last week he published proposals for lifetime savings accounts or "Lisas" which he claims should also give a much-needed boost to Britain's comatose savings culture. Dubbed the Bogof (buy one, get one free) savings plan, a Conservative government would match private savings with public contributions up to certain level.

"It's far easier to borrow than to save," he says. The savings ratio - the proportion of national income put aside for a rainy day - has slumped from 10 per cent in 1997 to under 6 per cent. We are saving £27bn a year less than we need to, according to the Association of British Insurers. Encouraging thrift is natural Tory territory, he says.

Mr Willetts also has creative ideas for helping pension funds and life assurers meet pension promises. He has floated the idea of "longevity bonds" - government bonds whose rate of interest goes up if longevity rises faster than expected.

He is no stranger to financial engineering. After Oxford, he worked for the Treasury, helping to devise Nigel Lawson's then innovative index-linked government bonds, which protected investors against inflation.

"Nigel was right to be radical about the big risk of that time - inflation," he says. "And longevity is today's big risk."

He supports in principle the Government's plan for a £400m lifeboat for people in pension schemes whose sponsoring company goes bust. But he has two major concerns.

First, the planned Pension Protection Fund will at first charge the same flat-rate premium to all funds, introducing a risk-based premium only at an unspecified future date. That, says Mr Willetts, is a recipe for trouble, encouraging imprudent behaviour by funds. The US took 20 years to introduce risk-based premiums, he points out.

He also lambasts the Government for failing to spell out that the PPF has no state guarantee. Ministers, he claims, are being "highly disingenuous" in suggesting that pension schemes will in some sense be guaranteed once the new fund is running.

He has no plans to lift the state pension age and claims it is not necessary. (The Tories have form here, of course. They were responsible for lifting the qualifying age for women from 60 to 65, a change which is being phased in from 2010 to 2020.)

He understands the great value of "final salary" schemes - which are increasingly confined to public sector workers and people over 40 - and is worried about the growing resentment of those in "money purchase" schemes. "We're heading for two nations in pensions," he says, confiding: "I do feel a bit uncomfortable about the parliamentary pension scheme" - a notoriously generous scheme financed by taxpayers. He personally declined the most recent sweetening of the scheme, when accrual rates were improved from one-fiftieth to one-fortieth.

If the pensions Armageddon he is predicting does befall the rest of the nation outside cosseted Westminster, Two Brains wants to be seen sharing a little bit of our pain.

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